Talks to ban nuclear materials need a fresh start

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

If grades in disarmament diplomacy were given out for perseverance, then Canada would surely merit an “A” for its efforts on behalf of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, or FMCT. Forging this treaty, which would ban the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, has been a supposed goal of the international community for over half a century. In that time, though, negotiations to bring the treaty about never even started, suggesting that the FMCT is one of those worthy goals that are periodically affirmed without any serious effort to realize them. And though Canada has traditionally led efforts to move forward on the treaty, the Canadian-led group most recently charged with supporting future negotiations has submitted a report that deserves a failing grade.

This is unfortunate, because the FMCT, if it ever happens, could have a major impact on reducing nuclear proliferation. The problem is that the 25-member preparatory group asked to facilitate the task of future negotiators has recommended that “the negotiation of a treaty … begin without delay in the Conference on Disarmament.” This is not a realistic solution, as anyone familiar with the Conference on Disarmament knows it does not act “without delay” on anything. It simply does not get things done. To initiate work on the FMCT will require its liberation from this diplomatic dungeon.

Canada has been closely associated with the FMCT since 1995, when the late Canadian Ambassador Gerald Shannon won approval for a mandate to negotiate the treaty at the Conference on Disarmament. In principle, the Geneva-based, 65-nation Conference is the United Nation’s designated forum for negotiating multilateral arms control and disarmament agreements. The forum operates under an extreme version of the consensus procedure, whereby no decision can be taken unless all members agree. Given the various perspectives and priorities of its member states, it has been unable to agree on and implement a program of work for twenty years. Nominally, it is this diplomatic forum that is supposed to assume the task of negotiating the FMCT, but opposition from one member, Pakistan—which claims that the treaty would be contrary to its national security interests—has blocked any official work on the treaty.

Each year through 2011, Canada led on a UN General Assembly resolution calling for the Conference on Disarmament to start negotiating the FMCT. In 2012, recognizing that simply repeating the resolution was an exercise in futility given the gridlock in Geneva, Ottawa decided on a new tack. That year, Canada led on a resolution establishing a Group of Governmental Experts “to make recommendations on possible aspects that could contribute to but not negotiate a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.” This mandate’s awkward formulation reflected the reluctance of some UN parties to see any type of negotiation on the FMCT begin.

The Group of Governmental Experts operated over eight weeks in 2014 and 2015, under a Canadian chair, and successfully adopted a consensus report. It was able to do this by eschewing any effort to forge common positions in favor of enumerating the differing views held by states on the key issues concerning the treaty. One issue that has loomed large as a point of contention is the question of the treaty’s scope, specifically whether it will be limited to future production of fissile material or cover past production—existing stocks—as well. The group’s 2015 report concluded that “the various perspectives of States on a treaty should not be an obstacle to commencement of negotiations.” It also affirmed that the so-called Shannon mandate, which recognized that the issue of scope remained open, “continues to provide the most suitable basis on which future negotiations can commence without further delay in the Conference on Disarmament.”

Despite these upbeat conclusions, further delay was very much in the cards and differing views continued to obstruct any action on the FMCT at the Conference on Disarmament.

Canada therefore seemed to be back at square one in terms of getting any negotiation underway. Apparently animated by an “if at first you don’t succeed…” attitude, Canada proposed a sequel to the Group of Governmental Experts under a new if more pretentious label. The “high-level fissile material cut-off treaty preparatory group” was the result, and Canada was once again able to obtain UN General Assembly support for this variation on an old theme. The preparatory group was duly constituted and met in 2017 and 2018, again under a Canadian chair. It was able to produce a consensus report, published by the United Nations in July.

Although the express intention of the preparatory group was to build upon rather than duplicate the work of the Group of Governmental Experts, the July report enumerates states’ various views on the FMCT—including scope, definitions, verification, and legal aspects—in a way that makes it highly similar to the earlier group’s work. The new report’s self-described “plain-language menu of potential treaty elements” has some value, but the array of preferences expressed has changed little since the 2015 report. Indeed, it would appear that the preparatory group didn’t even attempt to converge the views, as the report notes that “no attempt was made to narrow this range of substantive options.” The casual observer would be justified in questioning the purpose of the entire exercise if it didn’t even try to narrow the differences among states with respect to what the FMCT should include.

If the familiar nature of the views recorded by the preparatory group was disappointing, its recommendation that negotiation “begin without delay in in the Conference on Disarmament” was even more so, given that body’s track record. To confine the negotiation of the FMCT to such a dysfunctional forum seems the height of diplomatic folly, but this is the considered recommendation of the 25 members of the preparatory group. It would appear to serve everyone’s interests to repeat the hollow ritual of invoking the Conference on Disarmament gods, and Canada, regrettably, has been a willing shaman to this spectacle.

The 190 members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which first entered into force in 1970, committed themselves to nuclear disarmament as well as nonproliferation goals. In 1995 that treaty was indefinitely extended on the basis of a “package” of decisions, which included making the negotiation of an FMCT a top priority. Like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which opened for signature in 1996, the FMCT was seen as an important tool for reducing nuclear proliferation. The protracted failure to conclude such a treaty (or even start negotiations on it) contributes to a credibility crisis that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is now experiencing. If it can’t deliver on such core commitments after decades, what authority can it expect to command going forward?

To initiate work on the FMCT will require it to be freed from the constraints of the Conference on Disarmament and granted a fresh start under the authority of a diplomatic body not subject to the veto of any one state. This might be best achieved via a UN General Assembly resolution. Alternatively, a group of concerned states—such as the five official nuclear weapon states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or some other group that possesses fissile material—could undertake ad hoc negotiations.

Until the political will can be generated for such concrete action, the disarmament community should avoid exercises in treading water like the recent FMCT preparatory group. However well-intended, they only provide an illusion of progress, and further erode the credibility of the global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime.